Jan 15 2010

The Surreal World of Jakarta Malls: A Photo Essay

Jakarta malls are strange places. They’re islands of air conditioning in a town of near-slums. They’re the only thing to do if you have any money in this deeply unequal town. They have laughing Santas and Starbucks and skin whitening cream. I find them deeply disturbing.

24 Starbucks

At Christmas, all the malls had decorations in them. It was a big thing. Little Muslim children lined up to sit on Santa’s lap. Whenever I asked, people shrugged and told me that Christmas wasn’t really about religion in Jakarta.

Jakarta Santa

On Friday nights, the malls are packed. The fashionable kids, speaking a mixture of English and Indonesian, flood the white marble floors. The malls have very loud music, and sometimes DJs.

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Dec 31 2009

A Two Block Walk on New Year’s Eve in Jakarta

I saw the blue sky today for the first time in weeks, though the smog is even thicker than usual this afternoon. There’s something tense on the street, something more than the usual noise. I can feel it instantly when I step out of the restaurant air conditioning.

Indonesia’s first democratically elected president died last night. It’s been a turbulent decade.

The air smells like exhaust, food, people, and kerosene from cooking stoves. Bright orange three-wheeled bajaj taxis are lined up on the street, many more than usual. The sidewalk vendors are thick today, everywhere selling cheap cardboard horns. Their nasal wail pierces the traffic every minute or so. Some people are dressed up and obviously on their way out, though it’s early yet. The street is bustling. I walk as best I can down the sidewalk which is crowded by vendors and food stalls and motorbikes taking shortcuts.

It’s 30 degrees and oppressively humid. It’s always 30 degrees and humid.

Nobody stops at the crosswalk so as usual I have to time my crossing to miss the turning motorbikes. The trick is not to stop. Try to dodge them and they’ll hit you as they aim for where you wouldn’t have been. The haggard prostitute on opposite side gives me a little nod. At night she sometimes grabs me as I walk past. I pass her and make my way through a series of street restaurants built out of carts and plastic tables and awnings over the sidewalk, then turn.

The little alley twists through the innards of a huge block, and it quieter here. It’s lined with small houses, and open sewers a meter deep. On bigger streets the sewer trenches are covered with slabs of concrete, but not here. It smells bad. Children play. A fruit vendor prepares his cart for the evening, arranging bags of cut mangoes around blocks of ice. This is a pretty nice neighborhood, actually. The houses are concrete and right in the center of town. A man casually throws a piece of litter into an empty lot filled with garbage. Skinny cats wander.

I step out of the alley into Jalan Jaksa, the restless and slightly scummy packbacker district. The blowdart seller is talking to two pale young Europeans. He’s been working the street for 28 years. The old drunk guy is sitting on his usual corner in his usual clothes, nodding off. The local fixer nods at me, smiles his best, and thankfully doesn’t ask me again if I want a massage. It doesn’t smell as much here. A man sorts through a pile of trash on the street. From a story in the newspaper, I know that scavenged bottle caps go for about 50 cents per kilo, when sorted. I’m paying $25 US dollars a night for a clean room with air conditioning. A poor expat, a rich Indonesian.

And out of the chaos comes the evening call to prayer, the muezzin’s clear voice ringing out from the little neighborhood mosque. In the fading light it seems a moment of peace.

A motorbike with no muffler shatters it. Traffic resumes. I walk through several more food stalls, including my favorite juice place. In the evenings after work I like to order a fresh starfruit juice.

There’s going to be a big party tonight. Hundreds of thousands of people. It used to be at the center of town around the huge phallic monument but the police have moved it this year, saying that the revelers always trash the place. You can feel the surge of millions toward the center, you can already hear the odd firecracker popping out the last few hours of the decade. There’s nothing to do but make noise in this noisy city, to press ever closer together and celebrate.

Night begins to fall, fast.

A thirty-something woman in a very short skirt saunters down the sidewalk with nonchalant confidence.

I’m almost at the door of my hotel, where I will shower and change.

The proprietor of the coffee stall across the street sits at his one table reading a newspaper, waiting.

The city draws a breath–

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Oct 14 2009

“Risky” Interactive Art Returns to Tate Modern After 38 Years

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“Bodyspacemotionthings” is a playground-as-art, and it got completely trashed in 1971 when it premiered at the Tate Modern in London. Now it’s back, rebuilt slightly stronger and safer. And I think it’s awesome, and I want to swing on the rope and push that huge ball around.

Art you can fall off of will be familiar to anyone in the San Francisco independent arts scene (yes, I’m trying not to say “Burning Man” here), but it fascinates me to see how a very public institution in notoriously uptight country handles safety for an installation in a gallery which draws 100,000 people in a weekend.

The BBC report above focuses on splinters. Have we really become that lame?

Then again, I wonder if this piece could be shown at all in the US, a country with strong tort law and poor health insurance.

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Oct 05 2009

iPhone Augmented Reality Arrives — But When Will We Make Art With It?

Last year I imagined an iPhone app that superimposed virtual objects over video from the phone’s camera. With the advent of the iPhone 3GS and its built-in compass, it’s now happening.

This video shows NearestWiki, which tags nearby landmarks/objects and guides you to them. I am aware of a few other AR apps, as this post on Mashable and this AP story discuss. Many of these apps do building/object recognition, and one even recognizes faces and displays a sort of business card. We’re already seeing annotation with data from Wikipedia, Twitter and Yelp, and I suspect that we’re going to see these tools get very deep in the very near future, with Wikipedia-style tagging of  the entire history and context of any object.

Just a moment while I get over the fact that the future is already here.

Ok, I’m properly jaded again. Yeah, it’s an app platform, and that’s cool — but imagine the possibilities for art. Bets on who’s going to make the first “alternate reality spyglass” piece? Bets on how much Matthew Barney will sell it for in the app store?

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Oct 04 2009

Advertisers Smoking Crack, and the Future of Journalism According to Leo Laporte

Leo Laporte of This Week in Tech gave a truly marvelous talk on Friday about how his online journalism model works. The first half of the talk is all about how TWIT moved from TV to podcasting and became profitable, and includes such gems as

Advertisers have been smoking the Google and Facebook crack. And they no longer want that shakeweed that the [TV] networks are offering.

The second half is in many ways even better, when Leo takes questions from the audience and discusses topics such as the future of printing news on dead trees

Maybe there will always be [paper] news, but it will be brought to you by your butler who has ironed it out carefully for you. It will be the realm of the rich person.

and the “holy calling” of being a journalist:

You reporters are really the monks of the information world. You labour in obscurity. You have to be driven by passion because  you’re paid nothing. And you sleep on rocks.

He goes on to discuss the necessity of bidirectional communication, Twitter as the “emerging nervous system” of the net, etc. — all the standard new media stuff, but put very succinctly by someone who has deep experience in both old and new media. Very information-dense and enlightening!

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Sep 30 2009

Know Your Enemy

In America, the enemy is Terrorism. It used to be the Russians, or more generically Communists. We discussed the history of this concept in class today. And then I asked: In the state-controlled Chinese media, who is the enemy today?

I got three immediate answers:

“The West.”

“Japan.”

“Separatists.” (E.g. Tibetans, Uighurs.)

There was instant consensus on this list, among the PRC students. Good to know.

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Sep 23 2009

Mapping the Daily Me

If we deliver to each person only what they say they want to hear, maybe we end up with a society of narrow-minded individualists. It’s exciting to contemplate news sources that (successfully) predict the sorts of headlines that each user will want to read, but in the extreme case we are reduced to a journalism of the Daily Me: each person isolated inside their own little reflective bubble.

The good news is, specialized maps can show us what we are missing. That’s why I think they need to be standard on all information delivery systems.

For the first time in history, it is possible to map with some accuracy the information that free-range consumers choose for themselves. A famous example is the graph of political booksales produced by orgnet.com:

Social network graph of Amazon sales of political books, 2008

Here, two books are connected by a line if consumers tended to buy both. What we see is what we always suspected: a stark polarization. For the most part, each person reads either liberal or conservative books. Each of us lives in one information world but not the other. Despite the Enlightenment ideal of free debate, real-world data shows that we do not seek out contradictory viewpoints.

Which was fine, maybe, when the front page brought them to us. When information distribution was monopolized by a small number of newspapers and broadcasters, we had no choice but to be exposed to stories that we might not have picked for ourselves. Whatever charges one can press against biased editors of the past, most of them felt that they had a duty to diversity.

In the age of disaggregation, maybe the money is in giving people what they want. Unfortunately, there is a real possibility that we want is to have our existing opinions confirmed. You and I and everyone else are going to be far more likely to click through from a headline that confirms what we already believe than from one which challenges us. “I don’t need to read that,” we’ll say, “it’s clearly just biased crap.” The computers will see this, and any sort of recommendation algorithm will quickly end up as a mirror to our preconceptions.

It’s a positive feedback loop that will first split us along existing ideological cleavages, then finer and finer. In the extreme, each of us will be alone in a world that never presents information to the contrary.

We could try to design our systems to recommend a more diverse range of articles (an idea I explored previously) but the problem is, how? Any sort of agenda-setting system that relies on what our friends like will only amplify polarities, while anything based on global criteria is necessarily normative — it makes judgements on what everyone should be seeing. This gets us right back into all the classic problems of ideology and bias — how do we measure diversity of viewpoint? And even if we could agree on a definition of what a “healthy” range sources is, no one likes to be told what to read.

I think that maps are the way out. Instead of trying to decide what someone “should” see, just make clear to them what they could see.

An information consumption system — an RSS reader, online newspapers, Facebook — could include a map of the infosphere as a standard feature. There are many ways to draw such a map, but the visual metaphor is well-established: each node is an information item (an article, video, etc.) while the links between items indicate their “similarity” in terms of worldview.

iran_blogosphere_map

This is less abstract than it seems, and with good visual design these sorts of pictures can be immediately obvious. Popular nodes could be drawn larger; closely related nodes could be clustered. The links themselves could be generated from co-consumption data: when one user views two different items, the link between those items gets slightly stronger. There are other ways of classifying items as related — as belonging to similar worldviews — but co-consumption is probably as good a metric as any, and in fact co-purchasing data is at the core of Amazon’s successful recommendation system.

The concepts involved are hardly new, and many maps have been made at the site level where each node is an entire blog, such as the map of the Iranian blogosphere above. However, we have never had a map of individual news items, and never in real-time for everyone to see.

Each map also needs a “you are here” indicator.

This would be nothing more than some way of marking items that the user has personally viewed. Highlight them, center them on the map, and zoom in. But don’t zoom in too much. The whole purpose of the map is to show each of us how small, how narrow and unchallenging our information consumption patterns actually are. We will each discover that we live in a particular city-cluster of information sources, on a particular continent of language, ideology, or culture. A map literally lets you see this at a glance — and you can click on far-away nodes for instant travel to distant worldviews.

Giving people only what they like risks turning journalism into entertainment or narcissism. Forcing people to see things that they are not interested in is a losing strategy, and we there isn’t any obvious way to decide what we should see. Showing people a map of the broader world they live in is universally acceptable, and can only encourage curiosity.

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Jul 22 2009

Making Things out of Fire

Last week I helped to crew a large piece of fire art called 2πr at The Crucible‘s Fire Arts Festival in Oakland. G4 TV did a segment on the show, and that’s me in the spiffy black coat, trying to come up with equally spiffy comebacks over the WHUMP! of our sixteen flame geysers.

All of the art at the festival is what might be called “home made.” It more or less has to be, because there isn’t really a category for “consumer fire art.” Every piece at the festival was there by the love and ingenuity of its inventor-artist-builders. This is fun, but it might also represent an important do-it-yourself philosophy, a technological anti-consumerism.

Just to be clear, I did not conceive, design, or build 2πr. That honor belongs to Nicole Aptekar, Reed Kennedy, and Mella Piercey. But I work with them as a member of the Oakland arts collective Interpretive Arson, and I’ve been involved in making or running a number of different arty, firey projects (such as the infamous Dance Dance Immolation). Judging by the huge number of other projects at the Fire Arts Festival, and the even more widespread attendance at the annual Maker Faire DIY technology expositions, I am far from unique in my geeky, makey proclivities.

If technology is one of the major sources of power in the world, then it is vital that we make it democratic. Technology demands specialized knowledge and experience; it is usually seen as something belonging to an elite or privileged cadre, something not the concern of the average citizen. In reality, technology is easier to learn about than it has ever been, stupendously hackable, reasonably cheap, and lends itself to entire subcultures of experimentation and play. And I think we really want and need our modern citizens to play with and learn about technology. Although technology has not universally been a blessing, ignorance of powerful things is far more dangerous than their knowledge.

Is throwing huge plumes of fire into the night a part of this? Most certainly yes! When I’m not just going WHEEEE! I see at least three interesting lessons in the tale of the Fire Arts Festival:

First, fire art is is real technology. It requires computers and software, pushes the limits of DIY manufacturing techniques, and must be designed and constructed with real engineering, because compressed flammable gasses are none too forgiving of sloppiness.

Second, the very notion of do-it-yourself fire art for public consumption can challenge the way we think about safety, responsibility, and risk. In the first world in general and in the litigious United States in particular — a country which suffers not only from an overdeveloped sense of tort law but also from  liability concerns arising from lack of universal health care — we tend to believe that it is someone else’s job to keep us safe. To a certain degree this is true, and that’s why certification and regulation and signs that warn us about high voltage can be a good idea. But ultimately the responsibilities and tradeoffs of safety and risk must be personal, and the process of designing and building a fire toy for the general public to play with makes this stunningly clear. Likewise, the act of playing with someone else’s dangerous game can lead you to think carefully about why you should believe that this or any other activity is safe — and whether it’s ok anyway. Like traveling to a different country where the citizens have made strikingly different risk tradeoffs (and you can ride on top of the trains), interacting with dangerous art pushes us outside of known territory, forcing us to become aware of the millions of safety choices that have already been made for us.

Finally, art is an end in itself. I once heard a critic of 60′s counterculture quip, “is face painting and free dope the best that they can offer?” I think this critic lived a joyless life. Yes, the democratization of technology is an important effect of “maker” culture. But that’s not why we do it.

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May 03 2009

We Have No Maps of The Web

web-from-space

 

We dream the internet to be a great public meeting place where all the world’s cultures interact and learn from one another, but it is far less than that. We are separated from ourselves by language, culture and the normal tendency to seek out only what we already know. In reality the net is cliquish and insular. We each live in our own little corner, only dimly aware of the world of information just outside. In this the internet is no different from normal human life, where most people still die within a few kilometers of their birthplace. Nonetheless, we all know that there is something else out there: we have maps of the world. We do not have maps of the web.

I have met people who have never seen a world map. I once had a conversation with herders in the south Sahara who asked me if Canada was in Europe. As we talked I realized that the patriarch of the settlement couldn’t name more than half a dozen countries, and had no idea how long it might take to get to any of the ones he did know. He simply had no notion of how big the planet was. And to him, the world really is small: he lives in the desert, occasionally catches a ride to town for supplies, and will never leave the country in which he was born. 

Online, we are all that man. Even the most global and sophisticated among us does not know the true scope of our informational world. Statistics on the “size” of the web are surprisingly hard to come by and even harder to grasp; learning that there are a trillion unique URLs is like being told that the land area of the Earth is 148 million square kilometers. We really have no idea what we’re missing, no visceral experience that teaches our ignorance.

We can remedy this.

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Apr 15 2009

Nobody Actually Likes Advertising

ihatebillboards

(graphic from ihatebillboards.com)

You raved about advertising last night, and it was so easy to believe that you were wrong. Now I see that we were standing in the only spot where I could win. Next to a life-size replica of the mousetrap game, you told me that no one works for free. You said Wikipedia is going to fail because experts will never donate their time. Silhouetted in the apocalyptic glow of home-made fire art, you were preaching, saying advertising is the only option we have, saying commerce is the only real thing.

Sure, I said, deadpan. We all gotta eat. 

I was smirking, but today is Monday. At rush hour, I know I’m going against the tide. I spend a lot of time with very busy people who, economically speaking, don’t produce shit. The work I sometimes do has the cachet of underground. You have to know the right warehouses. It’s exclusive, but mostly it’s exclusive because you have to be willing to put your excess wealth into making your own culture. But what we do, it never put up skyscrapers. It has no market. It never built Rome, or railroads. You know better. You put such power into logos that the Khoasan Road bootleggers label their shoes “Nike” and the first hamburger place in Cambodia uses McDonanld’s colors. 

But this isn’t about globalization. It’s about you.

Back when we met, click-through was a means, not an end. We sat on the B-school lawn and told ourselves that the older generation were fools, that they had no idea what was good in life. We would only put our creative energies into projects we believed in, even if we weren’t quite sure what those might be. We were never going to work in a cubicle. We would never pitch a campaign to make insurance sexy. Then you got the offer you couldn’t refuse, and every new offer was a hard line pushed out a little bit further. You began to eat well, to afford health insurance, to think about having a family. The shine came off poverty, the outlines of reality shifted, and with them, the possible.

Now you sit in meetings where people say “monetize” without irony.  

You take in the company meeting and nod your head to the stock price. You tell me that open source is ridiculous, because actually Google funds Firefox and Ubuntu funds Linux. And Web 2.0 is for connecting with people — the people you want money from. And Facebook is for demographics, and viral marketing is culture, and when you did edit Wikipedia, you wrote:

A lifestyle brand provides a powerful supplement to the core identity of the customer.

When I read that, I knew the final person you’d convinced was yourself. You think you’re doing a good thing. And you’re probably right. The world really does work this way, because everywhere I’ve ever been, aspiration means money. And money means getting people to buy.

But you’re safe here, tonight. No one is watching. They don’t care if you believe, only if you deliver. So have another drink and let’s say it out loud, together, cut through and admit it: nobody actually likes advertising.

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